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In the year 284 A. D., Diocletian (as we now know 
the Dalmatian soldier of lowly origin) was by his soldiers 
proclaimed Augustus or Emperor of the Roman Empire, 
stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to Mesopotamia. This 
vast expanse he soon found to be too great for his sole ad- 
ministration, and he appointed an associate Augustus in 
286 and two Caesars or assistants in 293. In this action 
he had precedent, but he made more definite the govern- 
mental division, each of the four having his own quarter 
of the Empire with his own capital and his own army. 

In these and the following years the prices of com- 
modities of all sorts and the wages of laborers reached un- 
precedented heights. In the year 301, consequently, Dio- 
cletian felt obliged to issue an Edict fixing maximum prices 
for practically all articles and services. Of this Edict we 
know but little from literary sources^; but as it was pub- 
lished in inscriptional form throughout the countries to 
which it applied, we have the actual text recorded in stone. 
The preamble we possess practically entire, in four incom- 
plete copies which mutually complete one another. The 
most nearly complete copy is also that which has been 
longest known ; it was found and copied at Stratonicea (now 
Eski-Hissar) in that part of Asia Minor anciently called 
Caria, by a Mr. Sherard, who was English consul at Smyra 
from 1702 to 1 71 8. The next in importance is a copy which 
was brought from somewhere in Egypt to Aix in Southern 

• Three passages at most. There is an important passage in the De Mor- 
tibus Persecutorum, which passes under the name of Lactantius, but is of doubt- 
ful authorship; this will be discussed later in the text. The Fasti Idatiani 
(printed in Migne, Patrologia Latina, vol. 51, pp. 891 fl.), a list of consuls with 
an occasional historical note, remarks to the year 302 A. D.: "his cos. vilitatem 
iusserunt imperatores esse" — "when these were consuls the emperors ordered a 
cheapness of goods to exist"; it has been proven conclusively by the date in the 
edict itself that this date is one year too late. It is just possible that there 
is an allusion to these events in Aurelius Victor, de Caesaribus, 39, 45, "annone 
urbis ac stipendiorum salus anxie solliciteque habita" — "the price of grain in 
the city and the safety of the taxes were a matter of anxiety and worry." 



France, where it has been since 1807. Third, there is the 
almost equally considerable portion found in 1889 at Plataea 
in Greece by Professor Rolfe, of the University of Penn- 
sylvania, and Sir Charles Waldstein, of Cambridge Univer- 
sity and now in the Museum in Athens. Fourth, there is 
a small fragment found at Gythium in Southern Greece 
in 1892. Since that time, three more fragments of the 
preamble, all of insignificant length, have been found in 
different places. As for the price-lists, we have portions 
found in about thirty places, showing that the edict had at 
least thirty-two schedules and well over one thousand items; 
it happens that most of the price-lists are not in Latin, 
but in Greek, because they have been found in the Greek- 
speaking lands of the Empire: Greece, Asia Minor, and 
Egypt. Curiously, we have no fragments of the preamble 
in Greek.'' 

The materials for determining the cause of the high 
prices are very scanty. In the seventh chapter of the De 
Moribus Persecutorum, of uncertain authorship, but written 
in Asia Minor not long after the time of the Edict, the 
writer lays all the blame on the outrageous misrule of Dio- 
cletian; he had appointed three associates, each of whom 
had a court and larger armies than previously had existed 
in the whole empire; there was an enormous increase of 
officialdom; taxes for their support became so high that it 
was no longer profitable to till the fields, which were left 
idle and allowed to return to woodland; the continual requi- 
sitions for the use of officials and armies bore heavily on the 
people; yet the imperial treasuries were never allowed to 

' The most important publications of this Edict are the following (apart 
from some older editions now of minor significance): 

Th. Mommsen, Berichte der sachsischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, 
plilologisch-historische Klasse, III (1851), pp._l-8o; W. H. Waddington, Edit de 
Diocletien etahlissant le maximum dans I'empire romain (1864), a reprint of the 
text, with commentary, from his edition of the late Ph. LeBas's Inscriptions 
grecques et latines; Th. Mommsen, Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, III (1873), 
pp. 801-841; III Suppl. (1892), 1909-53. J. C. Rolfe and F. B. Tarbell, A 
New Fragment of the Preamble to Diocletian's Edict, " De Pretiis Rerum Venalium," 
in Papers of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, V (1892), pp. 
233-244. Th. Mommsen and Hugo Blumner, Der Maximaltarif des Diocletian 


become empty, for the emperors hoarded up a portion of 
the revenues which came in; there was tremendous building 
activity, especially at Nicomedia, Diocletian's capital; when 
a building was completed, the emperor declared his dis- 
satisfaction and ordered it rebuilt, often by forced labor 
of the people, so that men fled from the places where build- 
ing was going on; men of wealth were condemned to death 
under trumped-up charges, that their properties might be 
confiscated into the imperial treasury. 

But this formidable arraignment of Diocletian can 
hardly stand in all particulars. The writer was a Christian, 
embittered at the government which persecuted his co- 
religionists, and hardly in an impartial frame of mind. The 
Emperor himself, in the preamble to the Edict, ascribes 
the rise of prices entirely to the greed of the merchants, 
many of whom seem by his description to be similar to the 
modern profiteers, for they hoped that the weather would 
not favor good crops and they tried to control the seed- 
supply. He had long hoped, he says, that prices would 
presently settle down to their natural level, without any 
governmental interference, but since this hope had proved 
futile, he must interfere for the welfare of his subjects. 
What seemed to pain him most was that prices were raised 
to their highest pitch when soldiers were the purchasers. 

Diocletian's picture of the circumstances is perhaps 
quite as one-sided as that of the Christian writer. Our 
knowledge of the history of the times enables us to get a 
fairly clear picture of the circumstances which led to the 
increase in prices, and shows factors mentioned by neither. 
In the first place, before the accession of Diocletian to im- 
perial power, there had been a long succession of short-time 
rulers, elevated by their soldiers, and maintained by force, 
most of them of little ability. Aurelian alone stood out 
above the rest in the half century before Diocletian. Such 
civil warfare and uncertainty in the government is extremely 
expensive, since it consumes or destroys accumulated wealth 
and in addition hampers or renders impossible the produc- 


tion and distribution of goods and commodities. Dio- 
cletian, as we have seen, attempted at his accession to better 
the administrative conditions by appointing co-rulers, with 
whom he divided the Empire; but this, as his Christian critic 
says, greatly increased the taixes, for there was now not 
merely a single imperial court to be maintained, but four 
courts, each with its attendant officials and its armies. The 
enlarged armies were, it is true, necessitated by the assaults 
of barbarian tribes on the frontiers of the Rhine, the Dan- 
ube, in Mesopotamia and elsewhere, but that did not make 
the payment of additional taxes easier. An additional 
source of expense was entailed by having four capital cities, 
one for each ruler. Suitable governmental buildings had 
to be constructed in each city, and Diocletian at Nicomedia 
in northwestern Asia Minor was in fact a great builder. 
Under this heavy taxation, there was a great increase in 
slavery, and the liberties even of the free towns were re- 
stricted or lost. And the results of such taxation made 
increasingly difficult the raising of the taxes. The product 
was a vicious circle, not only of difficulty in securing the 
taxes, but of increase in the cost of articles of trade. Yet 
Diocletian must not be looked upon as the wilful cause of 
the distress, for in most respects the division of authority 
and the partitioning of the Empire was well-advised, and 
tended toward stability and personal safety. But the Em- 
pire was reaping the fruits of the preceding years of civil 
warfare and misrule, and was in no condition to bear the 
expense necessarily attending administrative reform. 

There was another important cause of the increase in 
prices, which has been intentionally left until the last, namely 
the debasing of the coinage. In the late RepubUc and 
early Empire, the standard coin was the silver denarius, 
the ancestor of the franc, and worth approximately the 
same as that coin.' But from time to time the amount of 
silver in the coin had been reduced, until shortly before 

' That is the franc at its normal value, and not at its present depreciated 


Diocletian the emperors were issuing tin-plated copper coins 
under the old name. Silver and gold coinage naturally 
disappeared from circulation. Diocletian took the bull by 
the horns and issued a new denarius which was frankly 
of copper, and made no pretense of being anything else; 
in doing this he established a new standard of value. The 
effect of this upon prices needs no explanation; there was a 
readjustment upward, and very much upward. The estab- 
lishment of a uniform coinage should have tended to sta- 
bilize prices at a new level; but apparently the new level 
was too high to please the Emperor, for, as we have said, 
in 301 he issued an Edict fixing maximum prices. 

Before passing to the text of the Edict, we might con- 
sider briefly its working; the available material, in fact, 
permits only a brief treatment. The writer De Mortibus 
Persecutorum, in the seventh chapter, says, "He (Diocletian) 
likewise, when by his varied unreasonable tax-levies he 
caused an immeasurable rise in prices, tried to regulate the 
prices of merchandise. Then much blood was shed over 
trifling and cheap articles; through fear, wares were with- 
held from market, and the rise in prices became much worse, 
until after the death of many men the law was through very 
necessity rescinded. "< In other words, the price limits set 
in the Edict were not observed by the traders, in spite of 
the death penalty provided in the statute for its violation; 
would-be purchasers, finding that the prices were above 
the legal limit, formed mobs and wrecked the offending 
traders' establishments, incidentally killing the traders, 
though the goods were after all of but trifling value ;^ the 
other traders, rather than sell at prices which would bank- 

*The text of this important passage is as follows: "Idem (Diocletianus) 
cum variis iniquitatibus immensam facerei caritatem, legem pretiis rerum venalium 
statuere conaius est. Tunc ob exigua et vilia multus sanguis effusus, nee venale 
quicquam meiu apparebai et caritas multo deterius exarstt, donee lex necessitate 
ipsa post multorum exitum solveretur." 

'Such seems to be the most natural interpretation of "tunc ob exigua et 
vilia multus sanguis effusus," but two other meanings are possible: (i) That 
many dealers, even in wares of low value, were executed in accord with the pro- 
visions of the law for its infraction; or (2) that the tradesmen forcibly resisted, 
even to the point of bloodshed and loss of life, the attempt of the government 
officials to enforce the price limits. 


rupt them, hoarded their goods against the day when the 
restrictions should be removed, and the resulting scarcity 
of wares actually offered for sale caused an even greater 
increase in prices, so that what trading went on was at 
illegal prices, and therefore performed clandestinely. 

Ultimately the Edict was of necessity rescinded; how 
long it remained in force is unknown. But Diocletian is 
known to have abdicated the imperial power in 305, four 
years after the promulgation of the Edict; the cause as- 
signed was ill-health resulting from the strain and burden 
of government. It would not be going very far from like- 
lihood to assume that the failure of the Edict to restore 
business stability was a considerable factor in his poor 
health and abdication, and that the Edict was rescinded 
very soon after his abdication, if not indeed before. It 
remained law, therefore, not much if at all over four years. 

As to the text ot the Edict, it is headed by the full 
names and titles of Diocletian and his co-Augustus and 
his two Caesars, and is therefore issued in the names of all 
four. This gives the impression that it was meant to apply 
to the whole Empire, but the thirty-five copies of which 
greater or smaller portions have been found, all come from 
Greece, Asia Minor, and Egypt, which lay in Diocletian's 
special quarter, and the writer of De Mortibus Persecutorum 
ascribes the Edict to Diocletian alone. Further the articles 
of local use or manufacture, which are listed in the schedules, 
all are of this same region. The natural conclusion is that 
it was intended only for the section which was under the 
especial administration of Diocletian. 

The preamble is of some length, and is couched in lan- 
guage which is as difficult, obscure, and verbose as anything 
composed in Latin. Diocletian doubtless wished to express 
his subjects by the terrifying complexity of the involved 
sentences ; and it is tempting to surmise that he secured a 
mixed committee of lawyers and grammarians to draw it 
up. One scholar pronounces it "ci peine intelligible dans 
certains passages," and another speaks of it as being com- 


posed "in schwer verstandlicher, theils gespreitzer, theils 
schwiilstiger Sprache." In French and in German there 
exist, apparently, no translations, but only some much- 
abridged summaries; in English there is a translation by 
Professor Rolfe, of the University of Pennsylvania, and 
Professor Tarbell, of the University of Chicago, presented 
with much hesitancy on their part, and running only to 
the middle of the eleventh sentence, where the Flataean 
fragment which they were editing comes to an end. In 
presenting herewith a complete translation of the preamble, 
therefore, the author is moved by the desirability of having 
it accessible to students in an English form, and he is not 
unaware of his own temerity in attempting the task; but 
he is reassured by the kindness of Professor Rolfe, who 
has consented to the use of his and Tarbell's translation, 
so far as it goes, with such verbal changes as the present 
writer cares to make. The following, then, is the text of 
this remarkable document, arranged for convenience in para- 
graphs of one sentence each ; 

"i. The national honor and the dignity and majesty of 
Rome demand that the fortune of our State — to which, next to 
the immortal gods, we may, in memory of the wars which we have 
successfully waged, return thanks for the tranquil and profoundly 
quiet condition of the world — be also faithfully administered and 
duly endowed with the blessings of that peace for which we have 
laboriously striven; to the end that we, who under the gracious 
favor of the gods have repressed the furious depredations, in the 
past, of barbarous tribes by the destructions of those nations 
themselves, may for all time gird with the bulwarks due to jus- 
tice the peace which has been established. 

"2. To be sure, if any spirit of self-restraint were holding 
in check those practices by which the raging and boundless avarice 
is inflamed, an avarice which, without regard for the human race, 
not yearly or monthly or daily only, but almost every hour and 
even every moment, hastens toward its own development and 
increase; or if the common fortunes could with calmness bear 
this orgy of license, by which, under their unhappy star, they 
are from day to day ripped to pieces — peradventure there would 
seem to be room left for shutting our eyes and holding our peace, 
since the united endurance of men's minds would ameliorate this 
detestable enormity and pitiable condition. 

"3. But since it is the sole desire of untamed fury to feel no 
love for the ties of our common humanity; and since among the 


wicked and lawless it is held to be, so to speak, the religious duty 
of an avarice that swells and grows with fierce flames, that, in 
harrying the fortunes of all, it should desist of necessity rather 
than voluntarily; and since those whom extreme poverty has 
brought to a perception of their most wretched condition cannot 
further keep their eyes shut; it suits us, who are the watchful 
parents of the whole human race, that justice step in as an arbiter 
in the case, in order that the long-hoped-for result, which humanity 
could not achieve by itself, may, by the remedies which our fore- 
thought suggests, be contributed toward the general alleviation 
of all. 

"4. And of this matter, it is true, as the common knowledge 
of all recognizes and indisputable facts proclaim, the consideration 
is almost too late, since we form plans or delay discovered remedies 
in the hope that, as was to be expected from natural justice, hu- 
manity, detected in most odious crimes, might work out its own 
reformation; for we thought it far better that the censure of in- 
tolerable robbery should be removed from the court of public 
opinion by the feeling and decision of those men themselves, who 
rush daily from bad to worse and in a sort of blindness of mind 
tend toward outrages upon society, and whom their grave mis- 
doing has branded as enemies alike to individuals and to the 
community, and guilty of the most atrocious inhumanity. 

"5. Therefore we proceed promptly to apply the remedies 
long demanded by the necessity of the case, and that too, feeling 
no concern about complaints that our corrective interference may, 
as coming unseasonably or unnecessarily, be considered cheaper 
or less valuable even in the eyes of the wicked, who, though seeing 
in our silence of so many years a lesson in self-restraint, never- 
theless refused to follow it. 

"6. For who has so dull a breast, or is so alien to the feeling 
of humanity, that he can be ignorant, nay rather has not actually 
observed that in commodities which are bought and sold in mar- 
kets or handled in the daily trade of cities, the wantonness in 
prices had progressed to such a point that the unbridled greed 
for plundering might be moderated neither by abundant supplies 
nor by fruitful seasons? 

"7. So that there is clearly no doubt that men of this sort, 
whom these occupations have engaged, are always mentally cal- 
culating and even seeking, from tihe motions of the stars, to take 
advantage of the very winds and seasons, and by reason of their 
wickedness cannot bear that the fields be watered and made pro- 
ductive by the rains of heaven, so as to give hope of future crops, 
since they consider it a personal loss for abundance to come to 
the world by the favorable moods of the sky itself. 

"8. And to the avarice of those who are always eager to turn 
to their own profit even the blessings of the gods, and to check the 
tide of general prosperity, and again in an unproductive year to 


haggle about the sowing of the seed and the business of retail 
dealers; who, individually possessed of immense fortunes which 
might have enriched whole peoples to their heart's content, seek 
private gain and are bent upon ruinous percentages of profit — 
to their avarice, ye men of our provinces, regard for common 
humanity impels us to set a limit. 

"9. But now, further, we must set forth the reasons them- 
selves, whose urgency has at last compelled us to discard our too 
long protracted patience, in order that — although an avarice which 
runs riot through the whole world can with difficulty be laid bare 
by a specific proof, or rather fact — none the less the nature of our 
remedy may be known to be more just, when utterly lawless men 
shall be forced to recognize, under a definite name and descrip- 
tion, the unbridled lusts of their minds. 

"10. Who therefore can be ignorant that an audacity that 
plots against the good of society is presenting itself with a spirit 
of profiteering, wherever the general welfare requires our armies 
to be directed, not only in villages and towns, but along every 
highway? That it forces up the prices of commodities not four- 
fold or eightfold, but to such a degree that human language can- 
not find words to set a proper evaluation upon their action? Fi- 
nally, that sometimes by the outlay upon a single article the 
soldier is robbed both of his bounty and of his pay, and that the 
entire contributions of the whole world for maintaining the armies 
accrue to the detestable gains of plunderers, so that our soldiers 
seem to yield the entire fruit of their military career, and the 
labors of their entire term of service, to these profiteers in every- 
thing, in order that the pillagers of the commonwealth may from 
day to day carry off all that they resolve to have? 

"11. Being justly and duly moved by all these considera- 
tions above included, since already humanity itself seemed to 
be praying for release, we resolved, not that the prices of com- 
modities should be fixed — for it is not thought just that this be 
done, since sometimes very many provinces exult in the good 
fortune of the low prices which they desire, and as it were in a 
certain privileged state of abundance- — but that a maximum be 
fixed; in order that, when any stress of high prices made its ap- 
pearance — ^which omen we prayed the gods might avert — ^avarice, 
which could not be checked on the so-to-speak endlessly extend- 
ing plains, might be confined by the bounds of our statute and 
the limits set in the law promulgated to control them. 

"12. It is our pleasure, therefore, that those prices, which 
the concise items of the following list indicate, be held in atten- 
tion throughout our whole domain, in such a way that all men 
understand that freedom to exceed them is removed; while at 
the same time, in those places where goods manifestly abound, 
the happy condition of cheap prices shall not thereby be ham- 
pered — and ample provision is made for cheapness, if avarice is 
limited and curbed. 


"13. Between sellers, moreover, and buyers whose custom 
it is to enter trading-ports and visit provinces overseas, this re- 
straint will have to be a mutual action, that, while they already 
of themselves know that in the need imposed by high prices the 
price-limits cannot be exceeded, at the time of retailing such a 
reckoning of places and bargainings and of the whole transaction 
be figured out, that under it there is manifestly a fair agreement 
that those who transport the goods shall nowhere sell at an unduly 
high price. 

" 14. Because, therefore, it is an established fact that among 
our ancestors also the methods employed in new enactments wab 
that boldness be curbed by a prescribed penalty — since very rarely 
is a status found for men which will benefit them with their free 
consent, but it is always fear, justest teacher of duties, which 
will restrain and guide them in the right path — it is our pleasure 
that if anyone have acted with boldness against the letter of this 
statute, he shall be subjected to capital punishment. 

"15. And let none think that a hard penalty is set, though 
when the time comes the observance of moderation will be a refuge 
for averting the peril. 

" 16. He also shall be subject to the same peril, who in eager- 
ness to purchase has come to an agreement with an avarice which 
retails in violation of the statutes. 

"17. From such guilt also he too shall not be considered 
free, who, having goods necessary for food or usage, shall after 
this regulation have thought that they might be withdrawn from 
the market; since the penalty ought to be even heavier for him 
who causes need than for him who makes use of it contrary to the 

"18. We therefore appeal to the devotion of all, that the 
decision made for the public welfare be observed with generous 
obedience and due scrupulousness, especially since by such a 
statute provision is manifestly made not only for the individual 
states and peoples and provinces, but for the whole world, for 
whose ruin a few, we learn, have raged exceedingly, whose greed 
neither length of time nor the riches which they are seen to have 
desired, have been able to moderate or satisfy." 

The provisions of the Edict are, in simple language, 
that maximum prices are set for articles of trade and for 
services, and that these are not to operate in such a way 
as to raise prices where the current level of prices is lower; 
that traders shall not buy in localities where prices are 
low and transport and sell the goods elsewhere at the max- 
imum price; that the penalty for the violation of the law 
is death, and that leniency is not to be expected in return 


for a conciliatory attitude in court; further, that the same 
penalty applies to him who purchases at an illegally high 
price, and to him who hoards goods and refuses to put them 
on the market at legal price. 

After the preamble come the price lists arranged in 
schedules. The prices are fixed in the denarius, no longer 
a silver coin but one of copper, the value of which at the 
time of Diocletian was established by the discovery of a 
fragment of the Edict, in which the price of one Roman 
pound of refined gold was set at 50,000 denarii; the copper 
denarius was therefore worth .434 cents. Many of the 
items in the schedules are for commodities no longer cur- 
rent, and others are preserved in so fragmentary a state 
that the prices cannot be read. A few of the more inter- 
esting items of the various schedules are given below, with 
the weights, measures and prices changed into United States 
standards of the present day.' 
Barley per bushel $.873 

Rye, or Oats' 

Dried beans 

Old wine 


Olive oil, best quality 




quart .054 



bushel .873 

' Weights were measured in the pondo or libra, the pound, which was equal 
to .722 lbs. avoirdupois and to .875 lbs. troy; and in the uncia, the ounce, which 
was one-twelfth of the Roman pound, or .963 oz. avoirdupois and .875 oz. troy. 

Lengths were measures by the cubitus, the ell, or 17.46 inches; and by the 
digitus, the finger, one twenty-fourth of the ell, or .73 inches. 

Dry commodities sold in bulk were measured by the Italicus modius, the 
Italian peck, which equaled 7.95 dry quarts, or almost precisely one peck; the 
castrensts modius, the military peck, had double the capacity of the Italian 
peck. The Italicus sextarius, the Italian pint, was one-sixteenth of the Italicus 
modius, and was therefore a trifling decimal under one dry pint; it was, however, 
employed mainly for liquids and equaled .578 liquid quarts. 

Other goods were sold by the piece, or by number; the size or quality 
was often specified. The pay of artisans, teachers and lawyers was reckoned 
by the time or by the services; and the same was true of charges for transporta- 
tion and the like. 

' It is regrettable that the price of wheat is lost on the record; when it 
is mentioned at other times in Roman history, it is chiefly in times of scarcity 
or of over-abundance. Thus in 210 B. C, dunng the second Punic War, wheat 
rose to I1.67 per bushel (Polybius, History IX, 45.3), while the poet Martial, 
in loi A. D., speaks of a harvest so plentiful that wheat sold at 17 cents per 
bushel (Martial, Epigrams, XII, 76). But the real interest in these prices is 
not in their absolute value, but in their relation to wages paid at that time. 





pound i 

S .072 





Best Bacon 




Best Ham 




Male Pheasant, fatted 





















Sea fish 




River fish 
















Onions, fresh 




Cultivated asparagus 


ii H 






Apples, best 




Sheep's milk 




Fresh cheese 




Farm laborers' 




Mason, carpenter 




Wall decorator 








Ship worker 








Teacher of reading and writing 


pupil monthly 


Teacher of Greek and Latin 


(( (( 


Teacher of public speaking 


U (( 


Lawyer, for getting the matter before 

a court 




Lawyer, for services during trial 




Ox hide, tanned 


Beaver's skin, tanned 


Leopard's skin, tanned 


Seal skin, tanned 


Country worker's shoes 


Patrician's shoes 


Woman's shoes 


Fir or Pine beams, 2000 board feet 


Transportation, one person, one mile 


Wagon load of 866 lbs. 


' mile 


Camel load of 433 lbs. 




' Many of these workers seem poorly paid in relation to the price of food, 
but we should note that most of them are furnished with their meals by the 


Raw silk' per pound 72.18 

Washed Wool, fine " " 1.052 

Washed Wool, ordinary " " .15 

Roland G. Kent 
University of Pennsylvania. 

• The high cost of silk was due to the fact that it was brought from China 
by land transportation.